[Editorial] Just because Lee Jae-yong wasn’t arrested doesn't mean he’s off the hook

Posted on : 2020-06-10 17:26 KST Modified on : 2020-06-10 17:26 KST
Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong leaves Seoul Detention Center on June 9 after a request for his arrest warrant was denied by a South Korea court. (Yonhap News)
Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong leaves Seoul Detention Center on June 9 after a request for his arrest warrant was denied by a South Korea court. (Yonhap News)

Early in the morning on June 9, a request for an arrest warrant for Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was rejected. With this decision, Lee avoided the fate of being detained once again two years and four months after he was freed from incarceration over an influence-peddling scandal when an appellate court ruled to suspend his sentence. But a look at the grounds given by the court for refusing to grant a warrant shows that he was by no means let off the hook for illegal actions to pave the way for his succession to management authority.

In its grounds for rejecting the warrant request, the court emphasized the importance of the “principle of trial without detention.” This means that it acknowledged the basic facts concerning unfairness in the Samsung C&T/Cheil Industries merger and accounting fraud at Samsung Biologics, but also rigorously considered the need for arrest in terms of the risks of evidence destruction or flight. Such principles should be applied across the board to everyone -- not merely the privileged class represented by Lee. The prosecutors should reflect on whether they did the right thing in requesting the arrest warrant, even if it meant neutralizing the “prosecutorial investigation review board” that Lee asked to have convened.

But the refusal of a warrant was clearly not an exoneration of Lee. The gist of the court’s decision was that it recognized the commission of illegal acts with the merger and accounting practices, and that the question of Lee’s responsibility for them is a matter to be addressed in a trial. When illegal actions have taken place in connection with someone’s succession to management authority, it makes no sense that the beneficiary would have had no part in them. Samsung’s claims that Lee was utterly unaware of the illegalities amount to a repudiation of the very role that the group head plays. That’s difficult to imagine.

Moreover, Lee was effectively convicted in the past -- up to and including a Supreme Court decision -- on charges of paying bribes to former President Park Geun-hye in exchange for assistance with the management succession effort. This means that illegal acts in the succession process have already been confirmed. Samsung set up a legal compliance oversight committee, while Lee offered a personal apology to the South Korean public. Unless their aim was to use that reflection and apology only insofar as it helped with the investigation and trial, they ought to be attempting to take clear responsibility for the illegal succession efforts and put an end to them rather than focusing on how to escape punishment for yet another issue.

Beyond the matter of the trial, Lee Jae-yong should be honoring the promises that he made in his apology to the public. Samsung Electronics and six other affiliates presented their implementation plans at the request of the legal compliance oversight committee, but ended up being asked to flesh them out further due to the absence of practical content concerning governance structure improvements such as the resolution of Samsung Life’s ownership of Samsung Electronics shares or having the board of directors play the central role in management. Samsung is going to need to walk the walk to show that the apology to the public wasn’t just a lie to avert a crisis.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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